Throughly Modern Miriam: Amazon's New Hit Show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Victoria Villamil

I’ve never loved Gilmore Girls. Before you screech, “Victoria! No! Say it ain’t so!”, hear me out. Despite its witty dialogue, I’ve felt its main characters, Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, were entitled, bratty, and very vanilla. What could have been a show about the intricate relationship between a mother and daughter was a soap opera that eventually concentrated more on pubescent romance than anything else. I was therefore quite surprised at how much I liked Gilmore Girls creator Sherman-Palladino’s newly released Amazon venture The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In many respects, the two shows are a lot alike. The dialogue is smart; the setting is lively; the women are opinionated. But Mrs. Maisel, which is about a 1950’s housewife who discovers her talent as a stand-up comic, is decidedly better and far more wide-ranging. Like the Gilmores, Miriam Maisel, with her fancy family and palatial home, is very privileged but unlike them, she knows it. I immediately took to this spirited character who, in one episode, stands up for herself in front of a sexist judge but who, in another, goes to bed with a full face of makeup waiting for her husband to fall asleep so she can wash it off. She dances back and forth between being a social critic and a socialite, questioning ingrained ways of thinking in her stand-up but also abiding by a set of prescribed rules at home.

Some might dismiss Mrs. Maisel as “a woman of her time” but this would be premature as there is many a modern woman who can surely relate. Nevertheless, a lot of today’s show writers present audiences with female characters they hope are aspirational but who are really one-dimensional clichés, zinging clever one-liners whilst being impeccably dressed. Mrs. Maisel zings a lot to be sure but it’s mostly onstage, in front of strangers who don’t know her real name. At home, in front of family, she is fiery but is sometimes left speechless. She’s impeccably dressed but admits she spends loads of time thinking about clothes. Mrs. Maisel is marvelous because she displays a true honesty and frankness to how she lives her life, a trait onscreen characters need. She embodies just what I love in a person; she’s layered, tangled, and real.

Critics agree; the show is really good. But after reading many positive reviews, I realised critics’ outpouring of support was for a different reason to mine. Vulture declared Miriam, or Midge, to be “a woman who may value domestic life but is, at heart, an opinionated whirlwind who’s finally liberated when she’s running her mouth off in front of a roomful of New Yorkers.”  Variety lovingly observed how Mrs. Maisel, “realizes, after a lifetime of being told by everyone else what to do, how to conform, what to wear and what to forgive, that she has a weapon in her hands.” They are all correct, of course. It’s great fun to see Midge, a rich Upper West Side Jew, joke candidly and often crudely onstage. But what about Midge offstage? Doesn’t that side of her life and personality deserve applause? Apparently not. Vulture complained that, “every time The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel delves into the Joel-Midge relationship or the dynamics within the two families, it loses a bit of its pop. It’s much, much more exciting when Midge is at the center of the frame.”The Houston Chronicle agreed, claiming that the, “over-dramatic in-laws, chicken soup, hiding the couple’s separation from the rabbi... detract from the other unique charms of the character’s arc.” The Huffington Post stated that Miriam’s parents, “are annoying in a way that makes us rolls our eyes and understand that being annoying is just what they do.” It seems that though many critics delight in Midge’s turn as a comic, they view depictions of her home life as unnecessary and, frankly, boring.

Well, it’s not boring and I think it’s precisely what makes Mrs. Maisel a noticeably different show. Very quickly in the first episode, Midge’s husband Joel leaves their marriage and she soon discovers her knack for performing. As a viewer, I assumed the story would mostly concentrate on Midge’s newfound path. But Sherman-Palladino decided otherwise. The next episode explores Joel’s own family dynamic and the immediate aftermath of their separation. The following ones gradually explain how the two met and show the early stages of their relationship. (There is even a series of flashbacks of the first years of their marriage set to Barbra Streisand’s wonderful “Happy Days Are Here Again” that actually had me almost tearing). As good as it feels to see a woman discover her hidden potential, exploring only that fist-pumping side of her life doesn’t paint a realistic picture of her as a person. And Sherman-Palladino achieves something new by introducing us to a distinctly paradoxical woman, with both progressive and traditional behaviour. Her family and house duties exasperate her at times but they also delight her; her focus on her femininity is both a burden and a badge of honor. It’s this constant push-and-pull between Midge’s life as a homemaker and her talent for stand-up that is different and exciting.

Sherman-Palladino especially breaks new ground with her portrayal of Miriam’s family, specifically when it comes to her mother Rose. Many films and television programs depict mothers as either control freaks or a girl’s best friend. Thankfully for us, Rose Weissman is both. She’s a woman who rolls her eyes at her daughter’s wish for employment but makes cups of Parisian hot cocoa when she’s home. She’s a mother who doesn’t comprehend why her daughter won’t forgive her husband but immediately helps her move into her old room. But above all, Midge’s mother (and father!) is her rock, her support system for when her children’s father walks out. Without her mother babysitting her two children every day, Midge could never go do stand-up. And without her father paying the bills, Midge could never afford to go do stand-up. She needs that safety net to reinvent herself, that domesticity to establish her way.  Rose and Abe Weismann are stubborn and old-fashioned, yes, but they are there for their daughter when shit hits the fan.

Midge’s reliance on her parents is a big crutch but it’s also mostly a blessing and Midge acknowledges both these truths, something Lorelai Gilmore never properly did. (This heavy, often silent, reliance on family is common today. Many, if not most, working women still depend on parental support, expressed through either childcare duties and/or monetary aid.) Unlike Sex and the City, this show takes time to highlight the main character’s cultural upbringing and how it shapes her worldview. And unlike Gilmore Girls, it gives credit to that upbringing instead of slamming it as archaic. Although Miriam groans that her mother is just “ so focused on me” during her stand-up, she comes to regret laughing at her expense, telling the audience, “I am going to give my mother a night off from me.”  Throughout the show, Midge shifts between publicly questioning her own role as a mother and wife to privately admitting she misses her old life. The Upper West Side might not be that exciting but it is safe and dependable, conditions Miriam craves just as much as a career in Greenwich Village. It’s to Sherman-Palladino’s credit that she probes her character's’ desire for both stage and home life, examining every side, angle and corner.  

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel also blatantly exposes the time consuming, strange pressure women privately place on themselves to achieve perfection. Miriam admits full well it’s ridiculous saying, “Why do women care about how people look at them or see them?” and later asks, “ Why do we have to pretend not to be hungry when we’re hungry?” But later, when she’s eating mac and cheese in front of friends, she promptly instructs her husband  to “eat some of this so people won’t look at me weird.” Most women know they adhere to unfair standards and guidelines but, even today, many continue to follow them. Miriam is guilty as charged but she  also very proudly celebrates colourful femininity and sophistication. She assuredly struts to downtown comedy clubs in statement hats and bold lipsticks, knowing full well they give her performances a distinct feminine flare. Sherman-Palladino admits that her title character really “revels in her femininity and is proud of it and while not defined by it, it is a giant portion of who she is.” Actress Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Midge, agreed, adding that her own grandmother also “enjoyed the performative elements of being a woman in the 1950s. It made her feel good, genuinely. It didn’t feel like a burden, like it may to some modern audiences.” Though Midge obsessively measures her body parts, she is openly unapologetic about it. When she realises she no longer needs to go to bed with makeup on, she is both relieved and disappointed. It’s this duality, these conflicting appetites that make her character so singular.  

Nevertheless, Miriam’s strong femininity comes into conflict with her new profession. When successful comedian Sophie Lennon first meets her she exclaims, “My goodness, you’re so pretty. Why comedy?” She then immediately dismisses the notion that women can be both attractive and taken seriously, advising Miriam she should invent a gimmick. “Men don’t want to laugh at you; they want to fuck you”, she warns, “You can’t go up there and be a woman.” Sadly, many people (including “progressives”) still abide by this twisted rule of thumb in male-dominated industries, whether it be comedy, tech, or science. (Interestingly, this show premieres at a time when female comics are speaking very candidly about the “boys club” mentality in the business). But Miriam stanchly refuses to negate herself and instead opts to celebrate her beauty and it’s ability make her feel confident and powerful. In this regard, Sherman-Palladino purposely re-characterizes the 1950s as a sizzling period of glamour and impending change, not just the usual cold serving of repression and angst. “If women don’t realize what’s going on in the world, they won’t step in and fix it”, Midge cries out spontaneously at a female rally, ““Because they will fix it! AND accessorize it!”

Amy Sherman-Palladino gives Miriam’s quirky dichotomy full creative attention in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and the show is the better and richer for it. She establishes who Miriam is right from the first scene when Miriam gives a toast at her wedding reception, lovingly acknowledging her family and new husband before cheekily stating to the Kosher-eating guests that the egg rolls contain shrimp. This opening shows Miriam to be devoted and playful, a person who both desires a fairytale life but also wishes to stir the pot. Sherman-Palladino confirms, “the story that interests me is the pull between the safe, comfortable life, which sounds pretty wonderful to her still, and this suddenly awakened sort of superpower in her.” She can’t be pigeonholed as a feminist trailblazer or a dutiful homemaker because she’s neither and both at the same time. Audiences needs shows like this one, not only because it is singularly upbeat but also because viewers from all walks of life can laugh with and relate to its principal character. After discussing The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel at length with Sherman-Palladino, Vanity Fair asked if she plans to write another chapter to the Gilmore Girls series to which she responded,  “We’re really focused on this right now. We’re really just focusing on this.”

Amen to that.